A frustrated caucus keeps complaints quiet

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), right, says some Congressional Black Caucus members concluded that the White House counted on them not to make too much trouble.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), right, says some Congressional Black Caucus members concluded that the White House counted on them not to make too much trouble. (Jahi Chikwendiu/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010

A year ago, members of the Congressional Black Caucus openly wept at Barack Obama's inauguration. Slowly, that euphoria has given way to frustration that his administration has not done more for black America. Questions about how to elect him have been replaced by questions about how to prod him.

For many, it is the surprise of a political lifetime that they find themselves wrestling with such quandaries. Alternately puzzled and disgruntled, CBC members say key people in the Obama administration have taken them for granted, in the belief that black members of Congress have no stomach for a fight with the country's first black president.

"We concluded they were just kind of listening to us and that then they would go back [to their offices] and conclude that we would do nothing," Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), the vice chairman of the CBC, said of one dispute. "Because they had concluded there's a black president in the White House and that, to some degree, the Black Caucus, you know, was constrained in expressing its desires. After a while, we said, 'Hey, we see what's going on and it's nothing.' "

On Thursday, CBC members participated in a rare one-hour policy meeting with Obama at the White House to discuss their concerns, most notably their disappointment over a jobs bill that they regard as largely a package of tax breaks for employers, noticeably bereft of job-training programs, new infrastructure projects and summer employment opportunities for youth. Such issues are vital to the CBC, many of whose members represent districts with high levels of unemployment.

In interviews with aides and members afterward, Obama was described as receptive to their message, even though he did not make any large-scale commitments. "He said he knew what unemployment looks like in 'my own neighborhood in Chicago,' " recounted Cleaver, who stressed that he was speaking only for himself. "He said he wanted to do things as quickly as possible."

"There was no contention at all," said Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.). "The president is very clearly focused on jobs and job creation."

A White House official issued a statement that ignored any tensions with CBC members and stressed the administration's goals: "President Obama is working to develop inclusive policies, whether in health care, education or the economy, that will have a broad impact on the American people, and Thursday's meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus was a productive effort toward reaching that goal."

Not withstanding Thursday's kind words, the CBC's list of complaints with the White House runs from policy to personal. Despite the caucus's entreaties, the administration has not provided targeted help to black communities and other struggling areas suffering from disproportionately high unemployment, members complain. Many caucus members say they feel largely ignored by key White House advisers. Their communication with Obama himself is minimal to nonexistent.

Lifting boats

Several CBC members and aides talk derisively of an oft-quoted Obama phrase: that a "rising tide" for America will "lift all boats." They see it as rhetoric intended to justify why the administration has not focused on their communities at a time when unemployment among African Americans has climbed to 16.5 percent. "I can't pass laws that say I'm just helping black folks," Obama told the American Urban Radio Networks. "I'm the president of the United States. What I can do is make sure I'm passing laws that help people, particularly those who are most vulnerable."

Many in the 42-member, all-Democratic CBC passionately disagree. African Americans and Latinos "bear the brunt of this economic recession," said Maxine Waters (Calif.). "We must not shy away from targeted public policy that seeks to address the specific and unique issues facing minority communities."

If Obama hears Waters's point, it is from a distance. Friends of hers say she has had no phone calls from the president and no consistent contact with other administration officials despite her position as a subcommittee chairman and a key player on the House Financial Services Committee. Before Thursday's meeting, neither she nor the CBC as a group had met with the president to discuss the jobs bill.

Several prominent caucus members have expressed doubts about the interest of administration officials in African American issues, referring to figures including Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and senior adviser David Axelrod. They "haven't had much involvement with minority communities in their careers, said Rep. Donald M. Payne (N.J.). "They've been in suites and boardrooms."

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